LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- I have a love-hate thing going with the NCAA. Here in a region where the heartbeat of college sports pounds loudly, in fact just a short drive away from the very headquarters of the organization, it's a part of life.
About a decade ago I was working on a story about college sports when a news editor stopped at the letters "NCAA" and suggested I might want to slip in a quick explanatory clause on what that organization does.
Really? You might as well say, the Roman Catholic Church, comma, one of the world's largest Christian denominations, comma . . .
The NCAA is part of the language in Louisville and the lexicon in Lexington and beyond. But it is, in fact, one of those terms that is used so often -- and with such passion -- that it tends to take on a wide range of identity beyond its actual purpose.
So while NCAA president Mark Emmert is paid a hefty salary to give a State of the NCAA speech and to protect the state of the NCAA, this is a freebie. Here is where the NCAA stands; and in some cases, where it is not standing.
1. College sports need the NCAA. Contrary to the opinion of some coaches at big schools, or fan bases whose player was not ruled eligible, a healthy NCAA is crucial to the success of college sports.
Without some central authority, and an effective one, college sports will become like horse racing. Every postseason will be bowl season. Every conference will write its own rules. If you want to see a prime example, look at the highest level of college football, which operates with marginal NCAA input. In that market-driven world, up is down, wrong increases your donations and Boise State is in the Big East.
The NCAA, in theory, is the guardrail that keeps college sports from running off the road. In reality, the NCAA's members are like the drunk at the party -- they hand over the keys, but not willingly, and then they spend most of the night trying to get them back.
The NCAA is just a collection of members. It has, at any given point, been given only as much control as could be deemed acceptable while still enabling its membership maneuvering room to cheat. All right, perhaps that's a bit strong. Let's just say "maneuvering room" and leave it at that.
Nonetheless, the first college sports event in this nation's history is widely believed to have happened in 1852, when Harvard and Yale challenged each other to a rowing contest. Later, as has been reported by Indiana University professor Murray Sperber and others, it was discovered that each side was cheating its oars off. Many of the participants on both sides were not students at their respective schools, and some were former students. The event did have a corporate sponsor, the Boston-Concord-Montreal Railroad (too bad it's not around to sponsor a bowl game today), who Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist says offered "lavish prizes" and "unlimited alcohol."
The NCAA would not come along for some 50 years, when President Theodore Roosevelt, in response to escalating injuries and even deaths in college football, convened two White House conferences to try to reform the sport and prevent many universities from discontinuing it.
Therefore, the NCAA, in reality, was founded just to keep football programs from killing each other -- but little else. Certainly it never was involved in organizing the sport in any great degree, and never has conferred a championship at its highest level, though from the 1950s to the 1980s it managed to keep a tight hold on the TV revenue.
Even with the NCAA keeping watch, college athletics have been a messy business. But that doesn't mean that without it the mess would have been less. In the absence of collective leadership, the market will lead, and the market doesn't much care for the college side of the equation as much as the entertainment side.
2. The NCAA is majoring too much in minor issues.
Last week I wrote about Michael Bradley, a player from Chattanooga, Tenn., who went to play basketball for Connecticut but sat on the bench for two seasons. The first he redshirted, the second he sat because of injury. In his third season, he wanted to transfer to Western Kentucky, in part to be closer to an ailing grandparent. He applied for a hardship waiver to the NCAA, because its transfer rules would make him sit out for a third straight season. He was denied. The NCAA found no hardship -- despite his family situation, and despite his having emerged from six years of foster care as an honor student.
Take your pick. There are dozens of stories like his every year. The NCAA might say that the public doesn't have all the information. I don't care. Whether Bradley or a hundred others like him play next season has no bearing right now on the problems of college sports or the mission of the NCAA.
The NCAA, it seems, spends a great deal of time handing out speeding tickets while megaconferences are robbing banks and out-of-control (or too-much-in-control) coaches are burning the credibility of the whole enterprise.
In small matters, the NCAA shows monolithic authority. In large ones, often it doesn't show up at all.
Twice in two years now it was caught with its bylaws down. Cam Newton's father is discovered to have been straight-up shopping him to various football programs, but the NCAA seemed to have no specific rule to go after the situation.
And now, in perhaps the worst episode in the history of college sports, an entire academic and athletic structure enabled a former assistant coach to methodically molest children. And if the NCAA is going to sanction such conduct, it will have to retrofit a rule aimed at something else.
The Jerry Sandusky crimes at Penn State, and Joe Paterno's apparent complicity, of course, were unthinkable.
Yet they show the NCAA's problem of scale. Last week, the NCAA suspended four AAU teams from the summer basketball circuit -- a circuit that it more or less has created, with its business partners the shoe companies. It suspended the coaches of those teams because of ties with agents, and that certainly is a concern.
But it is nowhere near the needle being pegged by conference realignment, or the scandal at Penn State, or the growing financial disparity between its richest members and everyone else, and the amounts of educational money being poured into athletic efforts.
Against the backdrop of those, the NCAA traffic-cop routine looks like only so much arm waving and whistle blowing.
3. The NCAA's hold on its position is loosening.
While the NCAA might be able to tell guys like Michael Bradley what to do, and is as adept at adjudicating eligibility as it ever has been, it has had no significant influence in the changing of the conference landscape, nor the makeup of the emerging college football postseason. It has pursued wrongdoing at Ohio State, North Carolina, Connecticut, Miami and elsewhere, but each time it has put out a fire, a larger one seemed to replace it.
When the richest conferences came asking to provide the players in their premier sports (and mostly men's players, at that) more money, NCAA leadership went along with a stipend structure that eventually was withdrawn because of questions in the larger membership.
In the big picture, the NCAA's ability to influence college football bounced out of bounds in 1984, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its iron-fisted handling of college football's television rights from 1952 to 1977 constituted an antitrust violation and price fixing. It has taken 30 years, but that decision has gradually removed the NCAA from the top level of college football nearly completely. Still, the words of Justice Byron White and William Rhenquist in their dissent seem prescient today. They noted that the goal of college sports differs from pro sports and other entertainment entities because of their educational end, adding, "Deviations from this goal, produced by a persistent and perhaps inevitable desire to 'win at all costs,' have in the past led, and continue to lead, to a wide range of competitive excesses that prove harmful to students and institutions alike."
The NCAA didn't help its own cause, nor its chance to serve as an example, when it sold the men's basketball tournament to seemingly every bidder. Even if it rationalized the corporate coziness with the explanation that it was distributing the money to its membership to provide more opportunities, it tacitly okayed a blueprint that now might be its undoing; get the money first, ask questions later.
Every major American professional sport has a salary cap, or some means for legislating some semblance of a level playing field. College sports, meanwhile, are wide open. And the NCAA, the one entity that might exert some sanity on it all, is restricted to bystander status by a membership drunk with money and power, or the desire for it.
Change -- not all of it for the betterment of
college sports -- is marching down the field at will with the NCAA
caught on the sidelines.
I won't be one of those who cheers as the NCAA's influence wanes. College sports need what the NCAA is supposed to be. But I don't see any road map for the NCAA to find its way to that point, especially with conferences and their members clamoring more recklessly than ever for the keys.
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